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Difficult Family Members: A Unique and Valuable Perspective

Difficult Family Members A Unique and Valuable Perspective

Every family has challenging personalities and difficult dynamics. In fact, many family members, when they are amongst friends or colleagues, have perfectly rational ways of communicating. But when you get all of those well-functioning people back into their families, something strange happens. Adults revert back to the parent/child relationship. Cousins who grew up together take on old rivalries. Siblings take on the roles they played as kids. These reversions into old roles can make it impossible for parents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings to see each other as equal players on a team.

The success of the family and the business absolutely requires that individuals step out of their old roles and build working relationships with one another. This requires finesse and a primary person responsible for managing these challenging relationships. This role often falls to a matriarch or patriarch, but this person is enmeshed in the family dynamics. They might think they’re resolving an issue when they’re really stirring it up, or burying it. The family council chair, however, might be just the person to take on managing difficult relationships.

There are several elements that need to be in place for the chair to be effective in managing difficult relationships:

1. The chair and family need to realize that spending time trying to resolve differences that have lasted for 50 years or have been passed down through generations, isn’t worth the time.

2. The family has to agree on a process to find other ways of communicating and build working relationships.

3. The chair needs to have dedicated time to understand the issues and focus on moving forward.

4. The chair should be paid, for several reasons:
> Being chair should not be a financial hardship for that individual. It is half-time to a full-time job, and if someone is going to do it well, they can’t work an additional 40-50 hour a week job.
> This job is hard, time-consuming, and often pretty awful (especially when family dynamics aren’t harmonious).
> The rest of the family will have fewer reasons to feel guilty if the person is compensated fairly.
> It’s easier to hold someone accountable when they’re being paid for their work.
> It will make it harder to walk away from the job when people’s emotions get out of hand if a person relies on this as a source of income.
> It shows the business that the family is doing their part to maintain good governance practices and that they’re taking the business seriously.

I often tell my family and my clients – the family doesn’t need to like each other, they just need to be able to work well together. Close relationships are a benefit, not a requirement. I find that this takes a lot of the pressure off of the family to spend time together with a group of people with whom they have very little in common except shared ownership in the family business.

Good working relationships are paramount to the success of the family. Think of a 5th generation family, like mine, as you would a team at work. You wouldn’t expect to have a close, loving bond with everyone on your team. You might have a few colleagues with whom you like to spend time outside of work, but for the most part, you don’t have much in common with your teammates other than the work itself. In a family business, the work itself is the family business. Your family strives to have an excellent working environment, meaning everyone feels heard when they speak, everyone is included in decisions, and information is shared effectively and transparently. The family knows what they are working towards and why. Families who have achieved these things are acting as a good team and can make room for those wonderful relationships with family to develop. In a mature family business, the business creates the context for the relationships, not the other way around.

Managing “difficult” family members becomes very straightforward, once you remove the pressure to feel and act like a close family from the context of the conversation. Every team member needs to feel respected, heard, and valued. If they don’t, they quit or make trouble. In a family business, those disgruntled family members often first make trouble, and then if you are lucky they quit, or sell out. Many more start defining themselves by the conflict and stay in it because they feel like they are finally getting a response, albeit negative, out of the business or family. They are finally being heard.

The best way to manage difficult family members is to recognize and give place to the value of their voice and perspective. I have found that many family members who don’t fall in with the overall family perspective are unique and valuable thinkers. They don’t toe the party line and fall into groupthink. They are not like many family members – so inundated with the group values and culture that they don’t even think to ask why this policy exists, or why this process doesn’t exist. Asking why is extremely valuable. Many young people coming into the family are great at asking why. They may not have mastered the art of tact, but they are not boxed into “well, that is the way that it has always been done, and that is the way that we will do it.” The same is true for those family members who are cast as “difficult” family members. Many obviously care about the family and business because they are putting a lot of energy into the business, and they are excellent at questioning the status quo.

The family needs to have a better response to any “why” question than, “that’s the way we have always done it”. The better response is to say, “I know why we started this process or policy, but I think that we need to validate whether it holds for us today.” This can be done easily in a task force process and it will work wonders in any family to address the challenges that are brought about by unique and passionate thinkers.



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